High Noon on the Border
Every border clampdown since President Clinton's 1994 Operation Gatekeeper has failed to stanch the human traffic, instead merely redirecting it into ever more perilous and remote routes. "When Gatekeeper was sold to us, the Clinton Administration said that we would need the lockdown on the border because in the short term NAFTA might generate a hump in immigration," says Claudia Smith, border project director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. "But they said that in the mid- and long term NAFTA would reduce the need for immigration. Yet here we are, ten years later, and none of those promises have been borne out. Here we are, back to square one, only 3,000 deaths and $10 billion later. We're back to square one."
The total failure of border and immigration policy turns undeniably stark on a recent Saturday-morning visit to the dusty Mexican town of Altar, a kidney-jarring drive about two hours south of the Arizona border. Once an anonymous bus stop in the Sonoran Desert, Altar is now a major staging point for illegal immigration. The town's few streets are lined with booths and stalls set up by yet other migrants, mostly from Oaxaca, selling everything needed to make the crossing: black jackets, black gloves, sturdy jeans, running shoes, backpacks, wool sweaters, black ski masks, one-gallon plastic jugs of water, small plastic bags of combs, toothbrushes, nail clippers, aspirin and lip balm, even $3 plastic trash bags cynically hawked as effective foilers of the Border Patrol heat sensors that riddle the US side of the line. Hundreds of mostly young men from all over Mexico and points farther south, but also some families with small children, sit or stand patiently in the town square waiting to make contact with their "pollero" or "coyote," who will smuggle them up the one dirt road and across the border. Thanks to the ongoing crackdown, the coyotes' asking price has skyrocketed to $1,200 a head or more, but no one can detect any decline in the flow of about 1,800 people a day just through this one town.
Along with me on the visit to Altar is Steve Laffey, the Republican Mayor of Cranston, Rhode Island, a city of 80,000, which is experiencing its own influx of undocumented immigrants. Laffey seems emotionally struck by the sordid human spectacle. On our way back to Arizona he laments, "If you had a hundred US senators come down here and spend only a day in one of the flophouses or a morning talking to these people, you'd have this immigration issue solved in less than a week. But it isn't gonna happen. Not yet." Laffey's at least half right: The US Senate is not about to convene in a Mexican border town. But something might happen anyway.
After a barrage of anti-immigration bills fired off earlier in this legislative season, Senators McCain and Kennedy introduced in mid-May their much-awaited immigration overhaul proposal--the first step toward comprehensive and bipartisan reform. There are other, more restrictionist proposals also in formation, including from Texas Republican John Cornyn. President Bush, for his part, while still paying lip service to reform, has yet to offer any specifics. In that vacuum, the pro-immigrant forces have rallied to McCain-Kennedy. "This measure would replace the wink-wink, nudge-nudge hypocritical system we have now with a common-sense law that can be enforced to the letter," says Jacoby from the center-right. "It's the basic bar we need," says Medina from the labor left.
McCain-Kennedy would provide for the legalization of millions of undocumented workers already living in the United States with renewable visas after they've paid $2,000 in fines for illegal residency; allow new immigrants to come in with work permits and achieve eventual residency; and as a trade-off impose tougher enforcement at the border and in the workplace. Reform advocates are buoyed not only by polls showing that about two-thirds of Americans would support such measures but also by the political clout of the business lobby that has solidly lined up behind this bill. "The only way we can grow the workforce we need is through immigration," says John Gay, a vice president of the International Franchise Association and co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, an organization that includes the US Chamber of Commerce and nearly three dozen other national business groups. This year has seen pleas, from labor-short growers in the Southwest to crab processors in Maryland, for a loosening of immigration restrictions (in November the Arizona vegetable growers asked the Border Patrol to back off detention of undocumented workers). "We want two things," says Gay, "a system by which we can hire workers for jobs that Americans don't want and a mechanism by which the 9-10-12 million undocumented can get some form of legalization."
"Yes," he says before I can ask. "That second point is the A-word, amnesty. There are two sides to this problem: people coming here, and people already here. Can't solve one problem without the other."
That amnesty, until recently the private reserve of the progressive left, has now been adopted by corporate America provides insight into how labor and business have converged on this issue. It's also why the toughest fight around McCain-Kennedy is going to be within the political right. Jacoby and others predict that if Bush pushes hard enough on his right flank, McCain-Kennedy could pass the Senate with a comfortable margin, while Representative Raul Grijalva, a liberal Arizona Democrat, calls himself "guardedly optimistic" about prospects for major reform in the House, where a McCain-Kennedy companion bill was introduced. Grijalva worries about the doggedly anti-immigration stance of the House leadership and the "inordinate" influence of Tancredo's restrictionist caucus.